San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2016; $16.95 tpb; 384 pages
The first thing to say about Invaders is that it’s a good collection of sf and borderline-sf short stories. I’d argue that all but a couple of the 22 are quite worth reading: a nice percentage. The stories are recent or nearly so, with copyright dates 1990 to 2015, except for one by Max Apple published in 1975.
But other than quality, the attention-grabbing feature of this collection of “Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature” is that the authors are all what editor Jacob Weisman calls, without irony or quotation marks, “literary writers”—i.e., from the mainstream, as most of the sf world would put it—rather than sf specialists, i.e., genre writers. (I think of Molly Gloss, one of the 22, as a “science fiction writer,” but I haven’t read any of her non-sf.) And yet, at least a half-dozen of the stories are not just sf-inflected but are quite orthodox sf (Molly Gloss’s first appeared in Asimov’s), while several others play humorous games with tropes from sf—or at least from pop-media “sci-fi.” The rest are “weird tales” or “slipstream” or whatever term of genre liminality one prefers.
In his Introduction, Weisman, who is the founder and publisher of Tachyon Publications (and coedited The Sword & Sorcery Anthology with David Hartwell), makes a comparison between the volume at hand and Tachyon’s 2009 anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel). That book featured a mix of mainstream and sf writers (I’m tempted to write “‘real’ sf writers” or “‘science-fiction-shelf’ writers”). Its goal was “to be a serious investigation of the intersection between literary writers who occasionally dabbled in science fiction and science fiction writers who occasionally dabbled in something resembling literary fiction” (xii–xiii).
Weisman notes that reviews of the book from within the sf community tended to find the stories by the sf writers “superior” to the others and to fault the mainstream writers’ lack of deep familiarity with sf traditions and tropes. But he disagrees with those critics, offering a provocative point about two very significant works of 1977 that are seldom mentioned in the same sentence: Samuel L. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and George Lucas’s Star Wars. In the former, Delany described the “protocols of science fiction,” with his now-endlessly-cited example of “the door dilated” and analysis of the readerly skills needed to decode densely informational sf writing. Weisman argues that since Star Wars, mainstream writers have become much more familiar with sf conventions: they no longer puzzle over doors dilating but rather dilate a few themselves.
I have doubts about Weisman’s argument, especially in regard to whether certain conventions of sf writing can be learned from nonliterary sf media and whether most mainstream writers—at least critics and nonfiction writers—have learned anything at all. (Cf. Jeffrey Toobin actually bragging to the New York Times last August about his “streak of never having read a work of science fiction.”) But it’s quite evident that a good number of mainstream fiction writers of recent decades have more than passing familiarity with at least some sf writers (or at least Philip K. Dick). The goal of Invaders appears to be to prove that non-sf writers can write good sf or anyhow good sf-inflected stories. As evidence beyond the stories at hand, Weisman’s Introduction singles out three “very accomplished sf novels” published in 2014 that were “shelved outside the science fiction section” and received few if any awards from the sf community: Andy Weir’s The Martian, Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, and the more under-the-radar Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun, who has a story in Invaders.
What I’ve called the “orthodox sf” stories in this anthology are the ones that from their opening paragraphs plunge us into a world that appears strange or baffling because of both situation and vocabulary but that—as the reader actively works to make sense of it all and as the story itself unfolds—becomes comprehensible as a reality that could be extrapolated from our present state of knowledge. (Could a definition of sf be much more “orthodox” than this?) The beginning of the Olukotun story, “We Are the Olfanauts,” can serve as an example:
U have to whiff this.
Y not? :-(
Don’t care. Send it up.
I pasted in the link anyway, ignoring Aubrey’s decision.
I knew she would whiff it eventually. One click and you were there. You may as well download it directly into your brain, and with a whiff the effect was nearly as instantaneous. I played the video again to confirm that it was as special as I remembered. (78–79)
It doesn’t take too long for us to discover we’re in a complex on the outskirts of a future Nairobi where the narrator works for the Trust & Safety division of Olfanautics as a censor: like someone working at Facebook today helping to decide what photos and videos to allow or ban except that our future Whyff program adds olfactory sensations as well. These, we are told, can horrifically increase the impact of a violent video.
My brief explanation might make Olukotun’s story sound humdrum, but much more is going on, revealed through skillful pacing and sharp detail: indications of poverty outside the elite headquarters; the employees’ acceptance of a surveillance society within those quarters; the important role in the plot of another technology, a Google Watch–like device called a Quantiband; and the fairly complex character of the narrator, who in certain important respects is not a very likable person.
The other straightforwardly sf stories touch on a variety of topics. Surveillance is a front-and-center concern of George Saunders’s brilliant and disturbing “Escape from Spiderhead”—along with the use of prison inmates to test mind-altering drugs. Gloss’s “Lambing Season,” set in a sheepherding wilderness right out of Brokeback Mountain, turns out to be a rather haunting First Contact story. “LIMBs” by Julia Elliott finds drama in a world of advanced geriatric drugs and bionics in a future nursing home. Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” imagines a brave new world in which test-tube humans have become like Eloi: diminutive and nearly asexual “boys” and “girls”; but unlike H.G. Wells’s devolved humans, they are long-lived and potentially vicious, slaughtering surviving bands of full-sized humans.
Katherine Dunn’s “Near-Flesh” reads like a throwback to 1940s–50s sf stories, except for the more explicit sexual content. It’s a fairly cartoonish portrayal of a tyrannical office supervisor who spends all her savings on various inflatable sex robots, including “the Wimp,” a model with a “Groveling program and Pleading tracks” that she can bully, as well as Bluto, her “Tough” robot (but with an easy-to-reach off switch). Whether the story has a strong element of misogyny also found in many a Golden Age short story, the reader will decide.
In a few of the stories, the sf elements seem more tangential. In Jim Shepard’s “Minotaur,” the narrator is a military man working for “the black world”—a realm of high-security desert bases and experimental weaponry such as missile-carrying drones. (The story, published in 2009, seems even less science-fictional today.) The plot centers on an encounter in a bar between the narrator and a former friend and fellow black-ops engineer and the impact of the meeting on the narrator’s wife. Unquestionably the “black world” is being presented as an analogue for a pair of male characters who are emotionally closed—secretive about the inner chaos barely contained within them. But the story is less heavy-handed than my summary sounds. The oblique way the situation unfolds, with sentence-by-sentence revealings and concealings in dialogue and flashbacks, makes it a standout in the collection. Another story with even more tangential use of sf is Karen Luce’s “Amorometer,” whose title refers to a device used to measure a person’s “lovecapacity” (sic). I hasten to add that the story, set in Japan and involving a bored housewife who finds herself mistaken for the experimental subject with the highest rating, is much less farcical than the premise makes it sound.
As for the other 14 stories, it would be impossible, not to say ridiculous, to rank them on a scale from hard sf to pure fantasy or to propose a set of slipstream categories in order to slide each story into the appropriate slot. But it is tempting—perhaps absurd but actually doable—to arrange this assortment according to how humorous or tongue-in-cheek each story is, from outright joke to postmodernist bemusement to sardonic satire to dead seriousness. The one story I’d count as a simple joke is Ben Loory’s “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” (2013), which is about exactly what the title says, said squid building a spaceship so he can fly to the sun and embrace it. Weisman’s introductory blurb calls it “one of [Loory’s] few sf stories” (31), but doesn’t mention the possibility—surely a very likely one—that the author is literalizing Margaret Atwood’s notorious definition of science fiction (as opposed to her own fiction) as “talking squids in outer space.” I should add that the label “sf story” hardly applies to “The Squid” except by the definition commonly used by nonliterary sf scholars, namely that anything is sf if it features sf motifs: robots, space travel, dystopia, alien intelligences, zap guns.
“Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated” by W.P. Kinsella, best known for baseball stories such as Shoeless Joe (adapted into the film Field of Dreams), might best be called a tall tale. In it, a human-sized but bird-shaped space alien tells how he was sent to spy on Earthlings by taking a job as a mascot for the Seattle Mariners. Fans enthusiastically accept him as a mystery “man” who never takes off his costume, but of course, he really isn’t wearing any: “I have to admit I was a natural for the job. I am a bit of an exhibitionist; I had also studied theater, where I majored in pantomime and clowning” (183). Sadly, a persistent groupie causes all to go awry.
Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema” (2004) too could be called a tall tale, but it’s much more deadpan—more like a Borges alternative history, if less compact than one of the Argentine’s ficciones. Readers familiar with Millhauser’s 1990 story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (or the 2006 movie version, The Illusionist), or his novel, Martin Dressler, would not be wrong to guess that “A Precursor” has a late-nineteenth-century setting and involves the manipulation of an audience’s perceptions. The story is in the form of a biographical essay on one Harlan Crane, who, we learn, first exhibited “Verisimilist” paintings and moved on to panoramas that appeared to show not just movement but interaction with the spectators’ space without using such technologies as slide projectors or strips of film. If the story has an sf quality, it’s due to the pseudo-historical narrative and the hints of an alternative technology.
A story in a more directly playful vein—you could call it another whopper because of the patently absurd novum, though much of the humor also comes from sharply rendered dialogue comparable to that of a Barbershop movie—is “Conrad Loomis & the Clothes Ray” by Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones. In his introduction to the collection from which this 1998 story came (Tales of the Out & the Gone, New York: Akashic Books, 2007, 12–13), Baraka offers some sf creds: in his youth he was an avid reader of “The Martian Chronicles [and] writers like Heinlein, van Vogt, Asimov, Clarke, and the annual sci-fi anthology,” and of Octavia Butler in later years. In the story at hand, our narrator tells about Conrad calling him in the middle of the night to announce the perfection of his latest invention, a ray gun that will spray strikingly original clothes on a human body, “by altering the light, rearranging the light.” Or perhaps it’s the illusion of clothes, since one feels bare skin if one tries to touch the fabric, which has a subtle glow—“Like it was made of television.” These are guys who know their antecedents: they talk about the Ealing Studio’s The Man in the White Suit and David Mamet’s The Water Engine, imagining a murderous establishment that wouldn’t want to see such a game-changing product on the market. Max Apple’s “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky” has some resemblance to “Conrad Loomis” if only because Apple also relishes colloquial dialogue and seems to be amused by an eccentric thinker. According to Weisman, Apple’s story “parodies the mad-scientist motif common in science fiction and in parodies of science fiction,” but I’m not sure about this characterization. True, the elderly Vasirin Kefirovsky is mad (he thinks yogurt flavored with a Middle-Eastern plant called “man” was the manna of the Israelites, and therefore eats nothing but his own homemade yogurt) and a scientist (or he was, though the story gives only vague hints of his former fields of study). But he doesn’t do anything remotely mad-scientist-y: he merely cultivates his yogurt. He also has odd memories of Albert Einstein, or perhaps the story is set in an alternate universe where Einstein had a brother (“I knew his brother Victor, who sold Red Ball shoes in Brooklyn” ). He seems to have arrived in America “a nobody, a refugee in baggy trousers” and had written an introduction to one of Kefirovsky’s books because he “needed the money” (293).
“Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” (1996) by Robert Olen Butler finds its more blatant humor in two connected things: the taking for granted of a “sci-fi” novum in our everyday world and the rambling narrative voice of Edna, a 40-year-old, small-town Alabama woman. Sample passage:
...and I reach out to him and the little suckers [he has eight fingers on each hand] latch on all over my hand, top and bottom, and it’s like he’s kissing me in eight different places there, over and over....
And then he leads me to his flying saucer, which is pretty big but not as big as I imagined, not as big as all of Wal-Mart, certainly, maybe just the pharmacy and housewares departments put together. (348)
The “spaceman” is a standard tabloid or Area 51 type–and as it happens, Butler’s tale was originally part of a volume of Tabloid Dreams, a collection inspired by those supermarket periodicals. Readers will decide for themselves whether Butler’s presentation of a regional female voice begins to slip from playful realism into condescending caricature; but there are certainly memorable passages as when Edna finds herself caught in the flying saucer’s tractor beam and starts to “wonder if they have tractor-beam pulling contests in outer space that they show on TV back in these other solar systems” (343).
“Portal” by J. Robert Lennon, first published in Weird Tales in 2011, likewise takes a motif from “sci-fi,” in this case a portal into another dimension, and treats it as if it were the most mundane thing in the world:
the magic portal in our back garden ... has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list. (1)
But the handling of the motif is somewhat more sly and sophisticated than in Butler’s story. Although the narrator, his wife, and their two teenage children are all-too-familiar stereotypes of the dysfunctional suburban nuclear family, Lennon does have some eerie descriptions of the family trying out the portal and visiting increasingly threatening and surreal places. I wish, however, that the portal didn’t turn out to be pretty much a metaphor for hormonal changes in the kids and the wife’s awakening independence from her unimaginative husband.
“Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry features a similar stereotypical family except that the one salient characteristic of the son (who narrates in place of the father in “Portal”) is that he’s gay but closeted rather than a video-game obsessive. Unfortunately, the execution of the story—in which the family is the first to try out a private space launch—is rather less interesting than that of “Portal.”
In several of the stories I’ve described, the authors seem to have taken H.G. Wells’s famous formula for his “scientific romances”—introducing one impossible thing into our world and allowing everything else to react as realistically as possible—to achieve the opposite of Wells’s intention: instead of this impossible thing leading to wonder or horror, it is comically (or at least satirically) normalized. (Yes, we’re living in postmodern times.) The brief “In the Bushes” by Jami Attenberg has a post-apocalyptic setting, but it’s a “soft” apocalypse: the Midwestern small-town narrator’s main complaint is that kids nowadays have to make out in the bushes instead of back seats of cars, which have been taken off the market after numerous wars demanded both petroleum and metals. Quirky details keep the story from settling into cliché: kids spend Friday nights picking “dirt weed,” an herb growing on the “back roads” that somehow became hallucinogenic after “the explosion in Council Bluffs” (141); back East, where trees have mostly disappeared, graffiti artists specialize in painting pictures of them on buildings, as well as creating “five-story marriage proposals” (143).
Junot Diaz’s zombie apocalypse story, “Monstro,” likewise has elements of humor but does evoke horror as well. The premise: a virus producing hideous mutations has originated among the poor people of Haiti and is about to spread abroad, first of course to the Dominican Republic, where the narrator, a young American of Dominican background, is hanging out with his spoiled-rich-kid friends. The larger context is global warming, most immediately evident in the rising seas and resultant lost beaches, eliminating most of the country’s touristic income. The details of the zombie-making disease are gruesome; the dancing-on-the-edge-of-the-volcano atmosphere is tense; the plight of the narrator, who has waited too long to get a plane back to the US, is desperate. Yet the story is irrepressibly exuberant in its verbal play—the narrator uses a Spanglish comparable to A Clockwork Orange’s Russian-laden patois as well as to Diaz’s other fiction—and seems almost to nudge us about its awareness of its walking-dead antecedents. Compared to a traditional realist treatment of an imaginary disaster such as Wells’s own The War of the Worlds, Diaz’s story dwells in a realm of the postmodern spectacle, flickering between depth and surface, between realism and knowing winks at its own fictiveness. (In 2012, the year of its publication, Diaz said he was expanding “Monstro,” which ends quite inconclusively, into a novel, but in a June 2015 interview on Words on a Wire, he said he was no longer working on it.)
Invaders offers a range of stories whose humor varies from downright silliness and mordant satire to mere arches of the eyebrow. It remains for me to call attention to a few selections that take us into the unnerving—but not humorless—realms of Kafka or Dick. The stories in Invaders that are the most Kafkaesque or Dickian—and I mean these adjectives as praise, not insinuations of lack of originality—involve some shift in reality, not merely a character’s perception (as in “A Precursor of the Cinema” and “Escape from Spiderhead”) but an actual plunge into altered states as in “Portal” and the four stories I haven’t yet mentioned.
Karen Heuler’s “The Inner City,” in which the protagonist is escorted down impossibly long corridors by increasingly threatening figures, most recalls the Czech master. But here, not only does reality shift as the story continues but language itself breaks down—the last paragraphs veer toward gibberish—as is the case, too, in Jonathan Lethem’s 1996 “Five Fucks.” Though the latter story in one sense is literally about the five encounters of its title, more significantly it’s about the increasingly drastic changes in its characters’ realities after each encounter. Brian Evenson’s nightmarish “Fugue State” is surely one of the most accomplished stories in Invaders, its corridors and watching rooms reminding me of the painter George Tooker’s surreal subway and office spaces and of David Lynch’s Lost Highways and moments of Mulholland Drive, is. And finally, more rooted in mundane reality—in this case, Manhattan coffee shops (the kind where patrons might talk about Heidegger and Will Ferrell in the same sentence) and cheap Chinese take-out meals—is Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness.” The narrator is an introverted graduate student in engineering who makes friends with two older men, intellectual types with no specified employment, who seem somehow related (they make vague jokes about being cousins). The sf element is time travel in respect to the “grandfather paradox,” but whether or not one of the men is actually a time traveler (and murderer) remains tantalizingly unclear. The Kafkaesque element of the story resides in the dreamlike and subtly absurd ways the younger woman encounters and interacts with the men.
Editor Weisman may not have proven that mainstream writers in general can write sf comparable to the best of today’s sf specialists, but he does demonstrate that some quite good sf is coming from nonspecialists and that a somewhat detached amusement (or bemusement) has continued to be a major stance of recent fiction of the fantastic.
Joe Milicia lives in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.